Vanessa Martinez was finishing preparations for her daughter’s second birthday in 2021 when her ex-boyfriend broke into her Mesa, Ariz., condo and shot her in the head as she tried to shield their three young children. Doctors removed a third of her skull. She needed a new place to live after much of the house was damaged in a standoff between police and her shooter.
Arizona has local victim compensation programs for victims like Martinez. She was denied help because she was behind on $900 in court fines from unrelated incidents, including one dating back nearly a decade.
Across the U.S., victims like Martinez are using their stories to seek changes in state victim compensation programs, where thousands of crime survivors seek help with medical bills, relocation, funerals or other expenses. The programs disburse millions of dollars each year. Crime survivors have organized rallies, testified at legislatures and met with dozens of lawmakers — with much success, reports the Associated Press.
Legislatures in more than half of states have passed measures to improve their programs in recent years. A victim’s criminal history is no longer an automatic disqualifier in Illinois. The time limit to apply for help was increased from three to seven years in California. Michigan's cap on aid will nearly double to $45,000 this year and more people like caretakers of victims will be eligible for survivor benefits.
States have cut back on denials to families based on the behavior of homicide victims and loosened requirements that crime victims must have cooperated with or reported the crime to police.
In Ohio, denials are no longer automatic for crime victims who have felony convictions or for surviving family if a murder victim had drugs in their system. Those reasons were used to deny help for a handful of victims in the 2019 mass shooting at a Dayton bar where nine people were killed and 17 others were wounded.
States have changed compensation programs over decades as more is learned about victimization. Mental health treatment wasn’t a commonly covered expense when the programs started in the 1960s and 1970s, but now is widely covered.
Sometimes, change runs up against institutional inertia.
Nevada doesn’t require sexual assault victims to go to police as long as they report the crime to nurses or other health professionals. A 2021 federal audit found 175 claims from those victims had been denied over a five-year period because of missing or incomplete police reports.
Lenore Anderson of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which organizes victims to advocate for criminal justice reforms, has pushed program administrators for years to shift their focus from eligibility requirements to victim needs.
“It feels so obvious that the very least we can do when someone is hurt by crime and violence is ask, ‘What do you need?’ And the fact that that is completely counter to how these bureaucratic systems operate is shocking,” she said.